Fighting extremism in Michigan

Sunday, February 21, 2021 - 2:05pm

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Design by Sharon Kwan

When the United States Capitol was stormed during the certifying of the election, many of us in Michigan saw immediate parallels to the recent political extremism in our own state. Following the insurrection in Washington, D.C., it is imperative that we work to address political violence by banning all weapons from the Capitol building and holding elected officials accountable for their violent rhetoric.

In April of last year, a large group of armed protestors who were angry about the state’s COVID-19 lockdown entered the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Mich. The scene inside the Capitol showed many aggressive and agitated demonstrators harassing legislators and Capitol police while dressed in military fatigues and toting semi-automatic weapons. Some of the people at the demonstration were identified as being part of far-right militia groups. 

After this intimidation at the Michigan Capitol, many Democrats in Lansing pushed to change the rules that allowed for people to carry firearms into the Capitol. Unfortunately, there was no change in the gun rules because of obstruction by the Republican leadership which refused to ban weapons from the Capitol building.

Months later, the world witnessed a similar attack on a larger and more dangerous scale at our nation’s capital. That riot led to the death of five people — including a Capitol police officer — and two more officers took their own lives afterward.

Following the armed protest at the Michigan State Capitol, representatives in Lansing eventually decided to take the small step of banning open carry of weapons inside the Michigan Capitol. While this is an important change, it does not go far enough. The change only applies to openly carried weapons, meaning that people with a concealed carry pistol permit can still legally carry a hidden weapon into the Michigan Capitol. 

The political violence that we have seen in Michigan has been furthered not only by lax gun laws but also by our very own elected officials. Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Jackson, has come under fire for his comments and actions that have lent credence to violent groups and movements in Michigan. 

Shirkey has long been an adversary of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, consistently working to oppose her agenda. Recently, he has resorted to making many bizarre and misogynistic comments about the governor, such as his sexist comments about her looks and his discussion about “spanking her” on the state budget. His comments and actions sometimes threaten or promote violence, including when he said he would like to fist fight the governor on the Capitol lawn and was caught on a hot mic saying that the Jan. 6 Capitol attack in Washington, D.C., was a hoax

Shirkey has not only promoted violence with his words but also with his actions. He has liaised with far-right militia leaders in Michigan and earlier this year, he met with the leaders of multiple militia groups to help them with their public perception.

His actions against the governor have been even more concerning due to the credible threats of violence against Whitmer. In October 2020, the FBI announced that it had arrested multiple members of a far-right militia who were actively planning to kidnap and harm the governor. Even after learning about the plot against the governor, Sen. Shirkey still made positive comments about militias and how “they are not uniquely different from you and me.”

These disturbing actions only serve to legitimize the violence that we have seen in our state government. If the highest-ranking Republican official in Michigan supports militia groups and says that the Capitol attack was a hoax, it only adds fuel to the fire. 

Our representatives in Lansing need to take decisive action to help address the issue of political violence in Michigan. Banning open carry guns in the Capitol was an important first step, but it must be extended to all weapons, including concealed ones. This will help us ensure that the halls of our democracy are free from instigators with violent weapons. 

Shirkey has become an embarrassment for Michigan. His rhetoric has been discussed across the country with everyone from John Oliver to the New York Times reporting on his comments. The events at the Michigan Capitol and at the U.S. Capitol have shown us that words matter. 

Our democracy is fragile, and the comments that Shirkey made are a direct threat to our democracy. That is why it is up to all of us to hold our elected officials accountable and advocate for the protection of our democracy in our state and beyond. 

Isabelle Schindler can be reached at ischind@umich.edu.


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